Religious Diversity & Social Unity - Q&A Transcript

Lecture: audio & text
Q&A: audio & text

Q: There are many people of faith who are clear about their religious conviction, which does not in anyway promote or condone amenity, hatred or violence. In spite of this, horrendous acts are committed in the name of religion. Will it then be more useful to avoid religious identity, but instead use other common identities that the peaceful people of faith can share to develop social harmony?

RW: A very important question indeed. My answer would be in the words of one British writer who said, “If you have bad religion, religion promoting violence or hostility, what most effectively deals with it, is good religion.” That is people need to be recalled to the heart and essence of their faith. The answer is not to try and avoid religious identity as if there is some higher or fuller way of understanding identity. It is to drive deeper into the religious tradition itself. I think that is why I am suggesting in the first part of my paper, that there is something essentially non-violent about all genuine religious conviction because it rests on a trust in God, not in my own capacity, strength and power. If all our faith could return to that fundamental insight about what faith itself is, essentially then, we can effectively counter terrorizing and intolerable forms of religiousness.

Q: It says here that the inter-faith engagement is one religious authority accept that the differences in faiths do appear quite easy for scholars to compromise. How would the lay-man be convinced that we are different but at the same time, similar? How will this be cascaded effectively, apart from emphasizing mutual respect?

RW: I think that is a crucial question for everybody involved in dialogue. How do we translate it from the high flown level of dialogue between scholars and leaders to the streets and neighborhood? It is at that common level that people discover something. People discover what their neighbor’s priorities are by watching what their neighbors and by finding out then, what to do with their neighbors. So when, for example, Christians and Muslims in Britain or Christians and Hindus in Britain find themselves collaborating in a project to increase access to education, or social welfare for the poor, in work with the children, they discover about the vision of what’s really human that binds them together. Now, they would know what that vision of being human is informed by very different doctrines and practices. And they will not want to compromise about that. But they will want to say “here is something that we can labor together.” And very often, to borrow a phase from the British government’s new document on this subject “Walking side by side can tell us something that arguing face to face doesn’t tell us.” Both are necessary. Arguing face to face means I have to recognize that the other really is another, I must not think they are just another form of myself. Walking side by side tells me that there is a “we”, as well as an “us” and “them”. So I think at that ordinary level, that street level of acting together, that’s when dialogue comes alive, when people begin to ask one another “why do you do that? Explain to me why we’re working together?

Q: Since shared security is key to sustainable peace, can you share some strategies on how to invite and engage extremist religious groups in dialogue, and learn towards the notion of shared security?

RW: First principle, I think an extremist of any faith is not likely to respond to somebody from another faith laying down the law to them. It is not very much use of me going to speak with Osama Bin Laden, because I do not think he will be convinced by anybody very much. We are all responsible,, in some measure, for our own extremists. And that is a very hard message for all of us to take on board. But that is where all of it starts. We all have to ask “How do we speak to people who are extremists in our own family?” A second principle, I think, is to go on challenging what conception of faith, and what conception of god the extremist has. The extremist who uses violence to promote their faith seems to be somebody who doesn’t understand what faith is. The person is so consumed by fear, anxiety and the urge to win at all costs that they have forgotten the transcendent reality to which they owe allegiance. They have forgotten that faith is all about god, not about me. Sometimes we have to find ways to speak with our own families about that, and to teach that day in and day out.

Q: We now move onto the issue of religious diversity. You mentioned about being inclusive, about being welcoming. Yet at the same time, that religious diversity is important for society’s well-being. Will this lead to syncretism? Can religious voice be given a public space since religious issues are emotive issues?
RW: Religious issues are emotive issues. Yes. But I think the truth is that all serious, moral issues are emotive issues. Sometimes, emotions tell us something about the truth. The danger is always in unexamined emotion. Just saying that “well, I can’t manage that because my feelings are against it.” Or “we have got to have it because my feelings are for it.” That won’t do. But I think it is reasonable to say that sometimes, the depth of feeling aroused by a moral issue, when it is located within a context of proper religious argument, is an important factor. I do not think we should be too afraid of emotion. But we should be very afraid of emotionalism and self indulgent emotion. And just on syncretism for the moment, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to tread what sometimes are rather difficult lines between saying “we have to have an attitude of spiritual and intellectual hospitality, which admits always I have something to learn from this conversation, without falling into the notion that I have nothing to start with, I believe with nothing to start with, and it does not matter which one is right.” I don’t think that is helpful, I do not think it takes us forward. I think there is such a thing as loyalty to what is being given to us as the truth. And, again, the deeper that loyalty is, the deeper the confidence is, that goes with that, the more willing I should be to be hospitable. To say “I know where I come from, and that is why I have the freedom, the openness to listen to you.” Quite the opposite of approaching with fear or anxiety.

Q: There is a question here for you to elaborate a bit on the engagement process between the Anglican Church and the Muslims at the local level in the UK. And similarly, the work of the Three-Faiths Forum and other similar groups in the UK in fostering racial cohesion. Perhaps we can get your views.

RW: Certainly, yes. Well, there are a number of different initiatives going on in the UK and I am very glad that the Three-Faiths Forum has been mentioned. Of course, it is partly the inspiration of someone who is a dear friend to many of us, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a distinguished Jewish businessman, philanthropist, what does one say about Sir Sigmund is everything. And he has worked for many years to draw people together in conversation and cooperation across the Christian, Muslim and Jewish divide. And I think a great debt of gratitude is owed to him for his work in that. When the Christian Muslim forum was launched quite recently last year in the UK; that was the result of a couple of year’s research which was sponsored from my office and initiated by my predecessor, Archibishop Kerry. The research went around local communities in Britain asking local groups of Christians and Muslims – often in quite deprived environments – what would be helpful for you in getting to know each other better and working together better? And the concensus was we need some kind of forum where we can talk together about issues affecting our families, affecting our schools, affecting our communities. And we need a national network that coordinates these local forums. And that was what the Christian Muslim forum set out to do. It has, I think, taken root very effectively in some areas. This autumn, we had our first national consultation. But much more importantly, the work goes on at local levels with precisely that attempt to find local issues where people can work together and creating a context in which they can talk honestly with each other about their convictions. We are in process of putting together a Hindu-Christian forum in the UK which will aim at the same end. So there is not a great deal which can effectively be done top-down. We need, if you like, central authority or resource to equip local communities to work together. And I think that is always the most constructive method.

Q: There are references made in most religious books that can be interpreted as violent as a result of religion. What is your view on these references?

RW: It is true in the religious text of many traditions, including Christian, Judaism and Islam. There are texts that people have picked up to justify violence. Every sacred text is a whole, not an assembly of parts. Every religious text in its whole tells us something about the character of God and everything within the text needs somehow be embrace within a coherent view of the character of the God to whom the text bears witness. If the whole text bears witness to a God who is merciful, a God who is loving, a God who forgives, a God who Christians involves himself directly in the history of humanity, then any text which appears to sanction violence needs to be put under the light and under the judgment of that whole picture. So, I would say that the answer to the question about picking up this or that text is the people need all the time to be pointed to what the whole text and the whole tradition of reading says about the character of God and it’s always a tragic and terrible thing when religious people use Christians, Muslims, Hindus whatever behave in a way, which instead of reflecting the character of a merciful provident of God, reflects a nightmare idol of God. A god who simply mirrors my own anger, frustration, oppressiveness and sadly we have all done that but it is coming to terms with the wholeness of the text.

Q: How can religious leaders prevent the attempt to divide society along religious and ethnic lines? Religious diversity allows genuine personal religious expression. The belief is that this will not harm social cohesion. However, when it is discussed in public, it is difficult to maintain social unity.

RW: There is always a temptation and there has been for centuries for people whose sense of identity is weak or under threat to appeal to those things that reinforce their things of identity, and religion can be used in that way. But religious faith, certainly in the context I have been speaking tonight particular in the Christian Muslim dialogue. Religious faith is about what is good for human beings, not what’s good for this ethnic group, this tribe, this class, this country; it’s about what is good for human beings. And politics is about how human beings live together constructively. So when a politician or anybody else uses religious language as a marker of identity, us against them, there is some kind of misapprehension, misappropriation. It’s very terrible when that entire faith means to some people a reinforcement of their ethnic identity. It does happen; you can see it at times in bits of European history. You can see it when people say for me. To be so and so means I must be a Christian. To be a Russian is to be an orthodox Christian. To be an Irish man is to be a catholic. To be Malay is to be Muslim.

The second bit of the question is a bit more complex. I suspect the only answer is the willingness to go on engaging, face to face, at street level with the other, never to be so insolated from the other that you will slip into another kind of self reinforcing another kind of exclusive language. And there is a lot more to be said about that but I think that is the heart of it.

Q: Picking up an earlier point about how different communities can live together. What about Huntington’s idea of a “Clash of Civilizations”? Your views….

RW: I think and I rather hope that Samuel Huntington himself didn’t have quite the crude theory that some people have turned his work into. But I am very suspicious of these discussions. I think that all civilizations are plural in various ways. They represent the weaving of different elements. One of the great illuminations historically came to me when I read a book many years ago on the history of the Mediterranean regions around the 600-700 of the Christian era. The writer of this book said that when the Roman Empire disappeared there were three cultural units which claimed the same inheritance from the Roman Empire. They were the western Germanic kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire eventually, the eastern bersantine empire and Islam. They were all arguing about the same cultural legacy, the same history of civilization. I think you could say that you can’t say that there is a kind of essential division between civilization such that these are some how existing in sealed compartments. From the beginning as I sometimes like to say, Christianity western, eastern and Islam have been not so much in clashes in civilization as a family quarrel.  But I refer to that level rather than the clash of these idealized abstract units.

Q: So in that vein, is the question here, who remembers fondly the Archbishop Thomas Becket (former Archbishop of Canterbury) whose question was, “Could the red cross and the red crescent come together as a show of social unity?”

RW: Well, I don’t see why not. A wounded person is a wounded person, whether you pour on the oil with wine in the name of the cross or the crescent. Probably what matters a great deal more to God is whether the wine or the oil was poured. I can say no more than that.

Q: At the Building Bridges Seminar, you said “Listening to each other is listening to God.” Could you please elaborate on this particular phrase?

RW: I think the phrase I used was something about “Listening to another person listening to God”, when we are in dialogue. The deepest form of dialogue to me is when I am present with; let’s say a Muslim or a Jew. I am with them as they listen to God. It’s as if I look into their eyes as their eyes look toward God and from that I hope and pray I learn something of God. So, I see them, I try to see them in their relationship with God as they understand it, as they listen to scripture, as they pray. And as I engage with them at that level, it becomes impossible for me to say, of the Muslim, the Jew, the Hindu, the Buddhist that they live in darkness on their own. I see their seriousness. I see the depth of their conviction and I love them for it. Now, as you will go at it, it doesn’t mean I think they are right or as right as we are. But that is not the issue. The issue is that I am seeing them in their dignity before God in their depth. A story which I very much love from the United States, a little girl in the time in the United States walks up to a woman wearing a Muslim head scarf and says,” I’m so glad to meet you, you love God, don’t you?”. The woman was taken aback and asked: “Why do say that?”  Well the little girl replied brightly: “I was on the way to church with mummy that morning and saw someone who was dressed like you and I asked mummy: “Why is she dressed like that?” and mummy said: “Because she loves God.”

Questions from Minister Yaacob

Q: Anyway, we come towards the end and as usual the privilege of the last question is from the chairman. I got a rather long question that I have been reserving for the whole week.  I think we all know that Dr William has been an active proponent of interfaith activities and discussion. And as you all know his Building Bridges seminar conducted in the NUS is the sixth of the series. And this, as we know, was in a response to the dangers of a possible 911 escalation between the two major religions; Islam and Christianity. I think we realize with such efforts have certainly made many difference and borne some fruits in many parts of the world. But as we recognize like all dialogues there will always be some limitations. I have two in mind. First, there is always a tendency to preach to the converted. Participants in interfaith activities tend to be self selected and there are groups out there who do not believe in interfaith activities. Question, how do we reach out to them?

In addition, there are people who do not have the opportunity, who are unable to participate in interfaith activities, so what more can be done for us to spread the benefits to the larger community of followers? For example, your Building Bridges seminar is actually for scholars. How can the benefits be filtered down to the community? Secondly, there is an increasing number of atheist and agnostics around the world. What role can they play in promoting social harmony and how can we get them to work with people of faith to promote harmony?

RW: Like a good chairman you asked three questions. So let me take them one by one, perhaps in the reverse order. On the third question, I think that when people of different religious traditions come together to talk about what we are trying to talk about this week,one message that ought to come out is that it is actually exciting for religious people to talk about ‘humanity in the presence of God.’ That what religious people mean by humanity as hinted earlier is more, not less than what the atheist means. We shall only ever commend faith to people who don’t have faith by making it clear that our account of humanity is richer, deeper, more promising and more joyful. If we can do that together, well then, it’s good. Again that doesn’t affect the question of our rival truth claims but at least we can convey the message, as we meet, that religious faith does not lock you up in some small and fearful world where you are hateful and suspicious as everyone else. It releases you, for an awareness of human possibility which is greater.  That is, I think, the most important thing that we can try to convey. Every Christian involved in mission, every Muslim involved in dakwah knows that part of what they are trying communicate is how we can become more human, not less but more, to be truly human in God’s presence.

Then your first two questions were really about, “This is all very well for people involved who can afford to travel to these conferences and read all the books, what about the rest?” I hinted already at some of the ways at which local level dialogue can continue and flourish when people meet each other honestly and candidly. I think that goes on in all sorts of context around the world and the way in which those who are involved in this dialogue will be working for that is I think, quite simply, by encouraging you to participate in it, in our own localities. One of the questions that been put before us this week during the seminar, “How do we regionalise our work a bit more so that in different parts of the world there are clusters of people, continuing to meet and talk and spreading the word locally?” Different groups will find that they are good at different things. Scholars are quite good at talking, and talking about text and ideas and that is fair enough as someone got to do it. But a good scholar of course, knows that he/she is only part of the picture, so we do what I think, I hope, scholars are good at. We talk about the ideas as best as we can and we in that talking about ideas also seek to listen to one another, listening to God. Others groups will be good at other things. Scholars are notoriously not brilliant at organizing practical things and probably if a group of scholars got together to organize a community project or something to do with teaching reading at a primary school, the effects wouldn’t necessarily be wonderful. But a scholar can support that and can help resource it. And a scholar can learn a lot by watching about what is happening at grassroots level. So I suppose that is part of the answer, we try to find what we can do. No one can do everything, scholars can’t, activists can’t, politicians can’t, and archbishops can’t. So we find what is it that God asks me to do because presumably that has his real purpose for everyone.

End of Session

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